The Ethics of Letting a Lying Defendant Testify

It’s snowing like crazy outside, and I’m stuck putting the lights on a nine-foot tree.  My only escape from the pine needles assaulting my tender skin is ethics reverie, and I find myself thinking, once again, about the classic criminal defense attorney’s ethical challenge:

What do you do when your guilty client wants to claim he’s innocent in the witness chair, under oath?

Anyone who approaches this topic should do so knowing he or she will make no dents in the issue, which has bedeviled lawyers, philosophers, professors and theorists for centuries. It is a good example of what some people hate about ethics, and why they prefer rules and morality: there is no clear solution, only a collection of alternate, flawed solutions with half-good arguments behind them. So just make a rule, already, and stick to it!

The problem with that approach, however, is that no rule makes sense in every case.

The reason the Lying Defendant poses such an ethical conundrum arises from a perfect storm of factors:

  • Anyone accused of a crime has a constitutional right to a defense.
  • Because the burden of proof in the United States is on the prosecution to show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the job of the defense attorney is to challenge and test the prosecution’s theory of guilt even when the accused is in fact guilty of the crime. The defendant not only has to be found guilty, he or she has to be found guilty for the right reasons, of the correct crime, using legally acquired evidence, with all the defendant’s rights as a citizen respected and protected, in a fair trial.
  • A criminal defendant has a the guaranteed right to testify in his or her own defense. No one else does. A lawyer who knowingly allows a civil defendant or any witness to give false testimony can be disciplined and even lose the right to practice law. A lawyer who doesn’t allow a criminal defendant who insists on lying under oath to claim his or her innocence will be disciplined.
  • An attorney is absolutely prohibited by the legal profession’s ethics rules from knowingly assisting a client, including a criminal client, in illegal or fraudulent conduct.
  • Everything a criminal client tells an attorney in confidence for the purpose of developing a legal defense is privileged, which means it may not be divulged in court or anywhere else. This includes the words, “I am guilty as hell.” The lawyer may not say or do anything that reveals the privileged information.
  • Lying under oath in one’s own defense is illegal.

Got all that? Put them all together, and this is what a defense attorney faces when his client, who has admitted to his attorney that he is guilty as charged, insists on testifying falsely that he is innocent:

The attorney must allow the defendant to testify, but the attorney cannot “assist” him in testifying. If the attorney refuses to examine the defendant on the stand, which is assisting him, then the attorney signals to the judge and the jury that the defendant is lying. If the attorney acts in a manner that shows that the client is lying about his innocence, than the attorney has revealed the substance of the client’s confidential communication that he is, in fact guilty, a violation of the attorney’s duty of confidentiality, the foundation of the attorney-client relationship.

In other words, whatever a lawyer in this situation does, it will violate the ethics rules, the rights of the defendant, or the United States Constitution.

The profession, filled as it has always been with clever people capable of making words and concepts do tricks, has devised various schemes to deal with this.

One of the most popular is to imagine it away. The attorney only has a problem if he or she “knows” the defendant is guilty, so many lawyers employ an extreme version of the word “know” that would be alien to any other profession. These lawyers argue that they never can “know” that a client is guilty, even if he confesses. False confessions are common, they argue. Who knows if the client is confused, or only partially telling the truth? The definitions in the American Bar Association Rules of Professional Conduct say that “know” means actual knowledge. Well, we only have “actual knowledge” about what we have personally witnessed, right?

Lawyers who get in the habit of reasoning this way thoroughly corrupt themselves; indeed, one of the dangers of the Lying Defendant problem is that many of the “solutions” lay the foundation of other unequivocally unethical practices. This definition of “know” would mean that we don’t know that the world is made up of atoms, that the Civil War was fought or that the sun will rise tomorrow. It’s a useless definition, except in the unique circumstance where it is inconvenient to behave as if you know what you really do know. Furthermore, the Rules also say that “actual knowledge” can be inferred from the circumstances. Playing Clintonian games with the word “know” (and where do you think lawyers Bill and Hillary learned this?) is not the solution.

Another popular, and related, way to try to avoid the issue is for the lawyer to make sure a criminal client never tells him or her whether or not he is guilty. This theory is that a lawyer who is never told,  never will “know.” In a memorable episode of  the old TV drama “L.A. Law,” a defense attorney who is suspicious of a criminal defendant client that appears to be as sinister and guilty as they come, warily asks him if he intends to lie when he takes the witness stand to proclaim his innocence. The wily defendant answers that everyone would be better off if the lawyer doesn’t know the answer to that question.

Gee, I guess the lawyer was completely in the dark after that answer, right?  It is ridiculous: there is no chance at all that an innocent client not intending to lie on the stand would ever give that answer. Under the circumstances, it is indistinguishable from, “Yes, I will lie my head off.” It is much the same with telling a guilty defendant, “Don’t tell me!” If the client is innocent, he will want to tell his attorney, he has the right to tell his attorney, and he should tell his attorney. If the client agrees that “everyone will be better off if I don’t tell you,” well, he’s guilty, and the attorney knows it.

It gets worse. Clients are supposed to tell their attorneys everything relevant to their representation. It defies logic to pretend that a criminal client benefits from not telling his attorney the most relevant information of all—whether or not he actually committed the crime he is accused of—unless the attorney is intentionally making it possible for him to lie in trial. If that is why the attorney doesn’t want to “know,” then the attorney is “assisting” his client in committing the crime of perjury.

You just can’t get there from here: a lawyer is going to know whether his or her defendant is guilty unless the client consistently proclaims his innocence, has a plausible story to tell on the stand, and his lawyer has reasonable doubts about his guilt as a result. In that case, the defendant’s attorney really won’t “know” that the defendant is lying, and there is no problem.

When the lawyer does know, the accepted options are few. First of all, the attorney is required to explain in the most emphatic terms how risky and stupid lying on the stand is. This includes telling the client one of the two “remedies” lawyers with lying criminal clients have to follow, depending on the jurisdiction. The first is telling the judge that the lawyer has to withdraw from the representation, without saying why because saying why would violate the attorney-client privilege. This, of course, has the result of letting the judge know that 1) the defendant will be lying, and that this means that  2) he’s guilty, and thus the “solution” violates the lawyer’s duty of confidentiality anyway. The other option, favored by New York, California and Washington, D.C., requires the attorney to let his or her client testify in narrative fashion, asking the defendant to tell his (fictional, perjurious) story without the assistance of questions, prodding or framing by the attorney. Then the attorney cannot use the defendant’s lies in the closing argument. Since attorneys only behave like this when their criminal defendant clients insist on lying under oath, this “solution,” like the first, also has the effect of alerting everyone that defendant is guilty of both the crime being tries and perjury.

Good plan!

When I was in law school, the writings of legal ethicist Monroe Freedman were used by ethics professors to illustrate what they believed was the “dark side” of the law. Freedman took the controversial position that of the options available to the defense attorney in the Lying Client scenario, an unexpected one was, all things considered, the most ethical of a bad lot: go ahead and treat the lying client as you would a truthful one, and examine him on the stand like any other. His argument: if an ethical obligation has to be surrendered, better to leave intact the core duties of zealous representation and protecting confidences, as well as the right of a defendant in a criminal trial to testify,  and sacrifice the duty of honesty to the court. At the time, Freedman’s argument seemed to endorse unethical conduct, but I am beginning to see the wisdom in his approach.

I would argue that a lawyer still must not coach a client in how best to present a false story, and I think there is no way the lawyer should use perjury in his or her argument to the jury. However, examining a lying client like any other holds more integrity, perhaps, than the lawyer pretending not to “know” what he or she does know, or pretending not be revealing the fact that the client confessed his guilt when using the narrative approach does exactly that.

And yet…

A consequence of the terrible options faced by the attorney with a criminal defendant who wants to lie on the stand is that the lawyer’s warnings that it won’t work are usually persuasive. Not many guilty clients take the stand to lie. Freedman’s solution may be more ethically direct, but it has the disadvantage of making defendant perjury more effective, and thus harder to discourage.

Has it stopped snowing yet?

4 thoughts on “The Ethics of Letting a Lying Defendant Testify

  1. My solution to this problem would be to force the lying client to question himself.

    Not directly, of course, but if a criminal defendant admitted his guilt and still wanted to lie on the stand, after properly admonishing his client, the defense attorney should require the defendant to specifically identify all the questions to be asked where a lie is to be perpetrated.

    The attorney should ask only those questions, whatever they are, and add none of his/her own as it pertains to the lie. The attorney may add questions to explore material facts that do not require a lie, if he deems it necessary to the zealous representation of his client.

    Is the attorney knowingly assisting a lying client? Yes, but only in the same sense as a recording device would. Should the attorney use the testimony in a closing argument? Yes, but only at the specific behest and with the explicit direction of his client. At all times, the attorney should advise against using falsehoods and refuse to do more than the minimum necessary to allow his client to defend himself.

    Does this approach solve the ethical problems you raised? No, but if the attorney removes himself as far as possible from the lie by refusing to “add value,” he is discharging his ethical obligation not to participate in deliberate deception of the court to the fullest possible without disclosing the fact of the lie, either by procedure or directly, and discharging his duties to properly represent his client.

    Zealous representation, it seems to me, should not apply to the zealous representation of a lie. That doesn’t mean that the attorney should prohibit his lying client from being heard, but merely that he/she should participate to the minimum extent possible when it comes to false information.

    Given the ethical dilemma produced by the conflicting mandates of criminal defense, I think that’s the approach that does the least violence to the ethical principles involved.

  2. Glenn, Professor Freedman often holds forth over at http://www.legalethicsforum, and this issue flares up agian from time to time. I think your suggestion does a better job threading the needle than any others I’ve heard, neither forcing the lawyer to use his or her talents to actively obscure the truth, or flagging the defendant’s lie (while pretending to protect it.) You should propose it, and I will on your behalf if I have the opportunity. I like it a lot.

  3. Pingback: Why it’s not actually in your best interest to allow a hired third party to speak for you in criminal proceedings pe Trilema - Un blog de Mircea Popescu.

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